A stranger dropping into the Washington Fire House last Sunday during the 90-minute Foothills Community Forum would have received a crash course on Rappahannock County, its residents, opportunities, and challenges.
Rappahannock 101: an overview of tourism, taxes, land use, open space, future development, the comprehensive plan, zoning, farming, schools, cellphone and internet coverage, and citizen engagement. Led by Rappahannock News editor John McCaslin, nationally known journalist Randy Rieland, and Foothills Forum chair Bud Meyer, but “taught” by a gathering of 40-some residents, many of whom offered observations and suggestions about the present and future state of the county.
The event, sponsored by the Foothills Forum, was organized to discuss issues raised in a two-part Rappahannock News/Foothills Forum Special Report, titled “The Land, a Plan, A FUTURE.” Written by Rieland, the articles — based on more than 35 interviews — focused on the challenges of protecting and maintaining the county’s unique rural identity.
Addressing the Sunday gathering, Rieland said “what appeared in the series just scratches the surface” of what are very complicated issues in the county. Residents, he continued, are dealing with a narrow slice of the issues day to day.
His intent in the articles was to ask, “What is the big picture here?”
That “big picture” document, the county’s comprehensive plan, “is the visionary statement. It is the bedrock of the county,” said Rieland.
“It’s our wish list,” agreed Flint Hill resident Phil Irwin.
Much of the discussion revolved around land — what it costs, how to use it, tax it, and zone it. Some in the audience pointed out the difficulty of doing certain kinds of farming in the county due to the price of land and the quality of the soils. But it can be done, said Rachel Bynum, who with her husband Eric Plaksin runs Waterpenny Farm near Sperryville.
“Landowners should do homework on their land,” Bynum pointed out, to see what is possible with the available soils and water.
Amissville’s Charles Harris seconded her comments, saying that “people could be better informed about farming. We have to think about the economics and how to raise food in the county.”
In response to a question from Rieland about the county’s reception and support of farmers, Nick Lapham, owner of Sunnyside Farm, shared his experience.
“I did not encounter a lot of roadblocks or obstacles,” said Lapham, who purchased Sunnyside a decade ago. “But there isn’t a support structure for businesses like us. If we want a more vibrant community, what are the kinds of support structures that we could put in place to encourage and support the farmers that are here or want to come to the county” to establish and operate a successful farming business?
One way, suggested Sperryville farmer Monira Rifaat, is through land use taxation which taxes farmland below residential rates.
“Without land use taxation,” Rifaat said, “there will be no farms. If the land I have is taxed at residential rates, it’s over. The next developer who walks through the door and offers a farmer good money, he’ll take it. Why shouldn’t he? He can’t afford the taxes.”
County Supervisor Chris Parrish said, “If you want to have open land, you have to make it easy for people.”
One hotly debated topic in the county is whether to increase cell phone and broadband coverage. Some see technology as opening a door to development, while others see it as a communications, business, and public safety necessity.
In the well-received Foothills Forum survey conducted in 2015, said Meyer, the top issues were broadband and cell phone coverage.
Civil consideration of our county’s future
If there are doubts about how many people care about the beauty of Rappahannock County, its agricultural base and its economic future, Sunday afternoon’s forum dispelled them quickly, Foothills Forum chair Bud Meyer writes: foothills-forum.org/civil-consideration-of-our-countys-future
Cheri Woodard of Sperryville said, “I would like to see the lack of cell phone service as the biggest crisis we’re facing. You could have more people out here making money if they had at least [cell service or broadband].”
Rieland cited the importance of broadband to medical care: “More and more is being written about how increasingly critical broadband is to medical care, particularly in rural areas,” he said. “In the future, a lot of medical care will be built around broadband.”
He also described the role of social media in encouraging tourism as a way to generate revenue for the county. He cited as an example last year’s “Oktoberfest” at the Pen Druid Brewery, which attracted more than a thousand people to the county via social media alone.
Otherwise, county officials at the forum seemed to agree that the county is in good shape.
Despite the issues and challenges facing Rappahannock, Parrish said, “I don’t see any grim scenarios coming down the road.”
Hampton district planning commissioner Al Henry, speaking of the county’s zoning and comprehensive plan, also tried to assure Sunday’s attendees.
“We should realize we are probably pretty safe in maintaining where we are” in terms of protecting the rural character of Rappahannock, he said.
In closing McCaslin summed up one “take away” from the newspaper series and the forum: “[They] have brought everybody together. That’s a good start.”
An unedited video of the Foothills Community Forum 2 p. m. outreach session on Monday, March 26, can be found online at rappnews.com/video, or on the newspaper’s YouTube channel at youtube.com/RappNewsPlus